Johan Hoffmann, a 38-year-old Berliner, didn’t really know about Korea until he came across Korean films in 1998.
The dark but artistic world of directors such as Park Chan-wook and Kim Ki-duk cast a spell on him and Hoffmann, who had studied Japanese, chose to learn Korean.
Hoffmann said learning to read and write Hangeul came easy and that influenced his decision.
“You only need a couple of days to know how to read and write Korean with Hangeul though you may not know what it means,” Hoffman told The Korea Herald on Monday, two days before Hangeul Day.
|Santivong Singkham (left), Johan Hoffmann (center) and Chiara Piovesan offer suggestions for Korean language education in an interview with The Korea Herald at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul on Monday. |
Hoffmann is among 174 foreign students from branches of Sejong Hakdang, a Korean language institute, who are visiting Korea to celebrate the official holiday in Seoul. During their seven-day visit, the students have been learning about Korean culture by going on field trips, participating in flash-mob events and appearing on TV programs.
“When I was learning Japanese, the fact that I didn’t really fully understand the use of Chinese characters, their different meanings and pronunciation was always a challenge. At least that wasn’t a problem in learning Korean,” he said. The German native runs a blog where he discusses Korean culture in Korean.
“When I was writing in German or English not many people visited the site but when I turned it into a Korean blog, an increasing number of people paid a visit,” he said.
Learning language leads to interest in the culture
Chiara Piovesan, a 21-year-old university student from Venice, Italy, said being able to use the language made her become more interested in Korean culture.
“I have come to learn about Korean history, which is quite different from that of Italy. I have a great admiration for people enduring the hardships in the past and achieving remarkable economic success in such a short period of time. I also became interested in Korean arts and I hope I can come to Korea to intensively study the language and arts for a year after my college graduation,” she said.
Those who are familiar with the language and culture often become a bridge for international ties.
Laos native Santivong Singkham has been learning Korean for about three years, including one year at the Sejong Hakdang in Luang Prabang which opened last year. Singkham befriended Koreans who visited Laos on Christian missionary trips or charity work and learned Korean from them.
“There are definitely more chances if you know the Korean language,” he said. “There are Korean companies (including KOLAO, a Korean-Lao automotive import company, which is arguably the largest corporation in Laos) in Laos and I don’t know how I can get there but I hope I will be able to work in the related fields,” he smiled.
Learning the Korean language is not always fun or easy. As there is no Korean-Lao dictionary, Singkham still has to depend on a Korean―Thai dictionary to learn new words or guess the meaning through websites.
Hoffmann pointed out that Koreans’ being overly enthusiastic about their culture sometimes makes him feel uncomfortable.
“Koreans would try to tell me that Korea is the best country in the world and has this, has that … I understand that it is a great country and has many wonderful things but taking too much pride is not a German thing,” he said.
Instead, approaching the wider public with something familiar ― say, culture ― might help. Piovesan, a Korean studies major, loves K-pop and acknowledges that it is becoming huge in Italy.
“Korea is a big world and there is so much to learn about. Maybe it shouldn’t be overdone, but use it as an entrance,” she said.
Singkham said Korean dramas were one way in which this was happening in Laos.
“Korea and Laos are far apart. Our languages are totally different and we don’t really have much in common. But Korean TV programs are hugely popular in Laos and I also grew up admiring it, too. I think culture can bring us together in a good way,” he said.
By Bae Ji-sook (email@example.com)